Monday, August 26, 2013

Our experiences are rarely pure

When I commented on Schopenhauer’s statement that to life is to suffer, my point was that it is oversimplified. Suffering is not the background noise of everything we do, not to speak of the thread through life. Rather I think that suffering and happiness are personal experiences brought about by the personal and individual happenings of life. In fact, everything is possible and what will be the case depends on where you live and in what circumstances, on your personality type and character, and on much more. There are moments and periods that we are happy and moments and periods that we are unhappy and that we are suffering. For some or maybe many or even most the latter may prevail, for others perhaps the former. This doesn’t imply that happiness or suffering is inherent in life, although one might tend to think that the latter is, if one realizes what is happening in many places in the world. Maybe life was so different in Schopenhauer’s days that for him it was the natural way to think so and maybe it still is in many parts of the present world.
Nevertheless, Montaigne, who lived a few centuries before Schopenhauer, had a more balanced view on life, I think. Montaigne didn’t ask whether the foundation of life is suffering or happiness, or whatever, but he wrote a lot about experiences and facts of life and what they mean for us. While Schopenhauer stressed that actually life is suffering, according to Montaigne pure experiences do not exist, as we can see in his essay “That we taste nothing pure” (Book 2, XX). Both our joys and our sorrows, both our positive experiences and our negative experiences are mixed and contain at least a bit of the opposite. “Of the pleasure and goods that we enjoy, there is not one exempt from some mixture of ill and inconvenience”, as he says there,  which he illustrates with a quotation from Lucretius: “From the very fountain of our pleasure, something rises that is bitter, which even in flowers destroys”. “Our extremest pleasure has some sort of groaning and complaining in it…”, so Montaigne.
On the other hand, Montaigne refers to Metrodorus, who remarked “that in sorrow there is some mixture of pleasure”. Although Montaigne seems not to be completely sure what Metrodorus meant by it, he adds that it can be seen that way, for instance, that “there is some shadow of delight and delicacy which smiles upon and flatters us even in the very lap of melancholy.” The “confusion” between joy and sadness can be seen well, when painters hold, so Montaigne, “that the same motions and grimaces of the face that serve for weeping; serve for laughter too”. This is actually an exemplification of the fact that both pure delight and pure sorrow do not exist. And I think that for most people it’s the same for suffering and happiness. Schopenhauer interpreted the world that way that everything we do has at least a shade of suffering if it is not suffering in disguise or suffering right away. But wouldn’t a more optimistic mind have said that the reverse is the case and have called happiness the essence of life? But in view of what Montaigne says we can ask whether any pure principle of life exists at all.


Special(e) said...

I am alive and I am not suffering.

HbdW said...

Thank you for telling me :) But tell it Schopenhauer for it is he who say that to love is to suffer. It's not my idea. Thank's anyway for reading my blog.

Diana H. said...

Thank you so much, Henk, for this wonderful post, which I have read with Amalia and we have enjoyed fully.
Well... maybe not fully, as we agree with Montaigne and you that there are no "pure" experiences :)

HbdW said...

Thank you for your reaction, Diana. I found Schopenhauer one-sided in this respect so I wanted to write a comment and I choose Montaigne as my point of reference for it. Because of that, I had chosen a title in the style of Montaigne.